Life has the same built-in elements which, in good fiction, are used to build dramatic tension and hold audience interest. In the real world, we get attached to people and things, and the attachment is broken. We intend to do things, then can’t or don’t follow through. We feel drawn by a sense of purpose, then lose our way. There are challenging people and situations; and there are ups and downs. Rare is the person who sees happiness derailed in these ways and considers their life story enlivened and their growth trajectory more sure. In fact, my work as a therapist consists primarily of helping clients to eliminate or overcome life’s detours which keep them from well-being and contentment.
These story elements can run throughout multiple generations. Some are tragic–abuse, financial struggles, and mental illness can bring about a quicksand-like sense of entrenchment which seems impossible to climb out of. Others are joy-filled, denote success and accomplishment, and add to life’s sense of sweetness. And the shades of grey between those extremes are endless.
The use of story elements in describing and rebuilding a personal narrative is a way to gain some distance and perspective from life’s difficulties. It provides an alternative to the standard societal imperative to ignore and/or eliminate them. A model embracing human imperfections might allow the “perfect story” to contain elements of difficulty and challenge which serves as a foothold towards greater illumination and contentment. Examining one’s life story to share it with others helps bring into focus a greater meaning for life’s events, good and bad. It brings into focus hidden personal rules and belief systems not working to ones own best advantage.
Thinking of the zig-zagged path of my life, my thoughts go to a less recent “zag”–a horseback riding accident which caused a brain injury and a series of abrupt life changes. Though milder than most, it fell into the traumatic range and caused memory loss, extreme fatigue, and various other cognitive difficulties lasting for years. I looked for the proverbial silver lining to make sense of it all. Turns out, it was one of the greatest motivators to rebalance away from a life that was overly focused on achievement–it taught me to let my heart rule my head a bit more. Telling a survivors story in front of a large crowd of TBI professionals brought an even greater focus to the general sense of purpose and meaning to the event which I at first found so difficult. Many of the attendees told me later that they identified strongly with the video I made to help tell my story. Giving it a dramatic framework made it more moving and meaningful. The story elements themselves had an archetypal resonance, resulting in a more effective and memorable presentation.
Conflict, tension, difficult situations or people, or things just generally not working out: in general, do these enrich life? If story’s function in my life is any indication, life’s twists and turns may be a good thing.
You can see my TBI video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kvQbofc65E